Every September, a sleepy beachfront town in Maryland is inundated with modified cars for what used to be the site of H2Oi, a primarily Audi and Volkswagen show. As most of the car community knows now, though, H2Oi was ‘officially’ canceled a few years ago and moved to Atlantic City. The rebellious crowd of enthusiasts who descend on Ocean City seem to disagree. For the past few years, they have continued to pour into Ocean City on the last weekend in September for a lawless ‘unofficial’ event that can be likened to a beach-themed, import-tuner, Mad Max tribute. Last year, the island was held hostage by tens of thousands of enthusiasts as law enforcement tried to tighten their grip and the crowds contested. This year, everyone is holding their breath for what could be either the most stifled, or least controlled, H2Oi. Naturally, I’ll be there to bring you the full story, but first, some background.
After the unofficial H2Oi 2019, Mayor Rick Meehan and his police chief stated that they will never again allow such wanton disregard for their laws as what was demonstrated then. They created a special task force, upped the fines in their new ‘special event zone’ that was initiated last year, and have brought in neighboring police forces to help subdue the anticipated droves of tuner cars. They have received approval to escalate the fines, place arrests for what they call ‘exhibition driving,’ and are expected to impound more than just the most egregiously modified cars this year.
If the social media posts are any indication, they aren’t playing around, either. Those brave (or foolhardy) enough to make the trip early in the week are already finding that OCPD is impounding even completely stock cars, just because they can. Posts of Golf GTIs barely lowered on some wheels, a bone-stock F82 M4, a slightly lowered S14 Silvia, and a nearly stock VA chassis Subaru STi have all been photographed loaded on trailer dollies to be transported to the impound lot. The ‘body count’ for Monday and Tuesday was supposedly 42 cars taken off the street and dropped at the local impound lot.
What’s more, the fines imposed for impounded vehicles have more than tripled, this year they cost owners not just the $1,000+ impound fee, but also require them to hire a tow company authorized by OCPD to remove the vehicle from the impound lot, adding an additional $300+ bill to the charges. That’s all just the impound, too. It doesn’t include the tickets for ‘unsafe vehicle,’ ‘unsafe tires,’ ‘illegal tint,’ and more the police are slapping drivers with to justify the impound.
So why does all this happen? The city argues that they are preventing a similar chaotic event that the pop-up meet has grown into, culminating with last year’s debauchery. Every year since H2Oi was ‘canceled,’ the meet seems to have spiraled into further lawlessness. The hype generated on social media platforms and beautifully filmed by big names in the car community like Krispy help draw the massive crowds by showing an absolute disaster zone permeated by the sounds of police sirens and clouded by billowing smoke from endless burnouts.
From the city’s perspective, the only thing they can do is stop the event before it happens. They believe that by creating it effectively illegal to drive anything in their city that weekend, it will reduce the number of attendees and ideally hinder any ‘unsafe’ vehicles and ‘exhibition’ driving, thus incentivizing the crowds to either stay home or at least disperse away from the concentrated Coastal Highway through Ocean City.
However, from the enthusiast’s perspective, they’ve done nothing wrong. According to Maryland law, their vehicles are, in fact, generally not illegal. When following the Ocean City FAQ link to vehicle modification guidelines, the only specific modifications they list as regulated are window tint (85% is the legal limit) and ride height for lifted vehicles, stating that they may not be more than a certain hight. That means many of the tickets, fines, and event regulations put in place are nothing more than local ordinances that hold little to no weight in an actual court.
What’s more, the enthusiasts who attend every year claim the only reason things become out of control is due to the unjust and heavy-handed police tactics employed by OCPD. Their attendance is more like a form of protest, a demonstration of their rights. Since it is not legal, technically speaking, for Maryland to enforce laws in their state on drivers from other states where their vehicles are legal, the enthusiasts claim the police are overstepping their authority and the city is imposing unconstitutional infractions on drivers who really just want to enjoy a beach vacation surrounded by their friends and a community they love.
But what does the town think? For many residents, the event is an annual nightmare. Their commutes are interrupted by both the increased police presence and the onslaught of enthusiast drivers. Their evenings are disrupted by the noise of thundering exhausts, two-stepping rev battles, burnouts, police sirens, and chanting crowds. They fear for their safety, in some cases, as parties turn into nearly full-on riots.
Business owners, though, tell a different story. Every year, the high attendance pumps income into the local economy in the form of hotel bookings, meals at restaurants, nights out at local haunts, car washes, and even towing companies as they rake in the dough from impounded cars and regular break-downs. Local attractions see a boom in demand as everyone enjoys what Ocean City has to offer as a resort destination. They tend to think of it as their annual bonus, a guaranteed source of inflated income that they rely on. This year, thanks to the months-long quarantine and lower tourist volume, it may be all that stops them from closing their doors permanently as so many other businesses have already.
Naturally, if OCPD completely locks down the town, those businesses will not receive that boost in revenue that they may have banked on to survive this economic depression. While the city may still receive their income from tickets, court fees, impound fees, and arrests, none of that revenue trickles into the private sector. If the early news flowing in from enthusiasts already at Ocean City is any indication, the police force may well have the city locked down.
Checkpoints on inbound causeways have already been erected, temporary speed bumps laid on high-traffic streets to slow drivers to a crawl, countless traffic stops, most ending in trips to the impound lot, have already begun to happen. Watching the live traffic camera footage shows a massive police presence cruising the strip, two-by-two on motorcycles, and peppered in regular traffic with interceptors and undercover vehicles alike. It seems, so far, many enthusiasts already at the resort town are avoiding Coastal Highway, opting instead to sneak in under the radar if they can and park at their lodging permanently for the weekend.
Hopefully, though, a happy medium is reached. If the enthusiasts can still enjoy themselves simply posted up and parked all weekend, and reckless behavior is curtailed to a minimum, we may see a manageable event take place that will help build confidence for the local authorities. Maybe, we can all experience a safe, fun, and a relatively uneventful weekend that proves their police presence wasn’t necessary. Unfortunately, though, the weekend is when things may grow out of hand.
With the largest crowds expected to arrive Thursday and Friday, the police may feel backed into a corner. Like a trapped animal, they may quickly escalate tactics to borderline brutality, which could, in turn, spark backlash from the crowds of attendees. We can only guess as to how this weekend will play out, but you can bank that I’ll be there to bring you the full story as it unfolds. So stay tuned, stay safe, and I’ll see you at Ocean City.
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